Utility to pay $360M for major Southern California wildfires


FILE – In this Friday, Nov. 9, 2018 file photo, a firefighter battles the Woolsey Fire burning a home in Malibu, Calif. A Southern California utility has agreed to pay $360 million to settle lawsuits brought by cities, counties and other public agencies over deadly wildfires sparked by its equipment in the last two years, including one that was later blamed for a mudslide that killed more than 20 people. An attorney for 23 public entities said Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019, that Southern California Edison has agreed to the sum to repay taxpayers for firefighting and damage from the Thomas Fire in 2017 and Woolsey Fire last year. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu, File)

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Southern California Edison has agreed to pay $360 million to local governments to settle lawsuits over deadly wildfires sparked by its equipment during the last two years, including one blamed for a mudslide that killed more than 20 people, the utility and attorneys announced Wednesday.

The sum will reimburse counties, cities and other public agencies for firefighting costs and repairing damage from two of the region’s worst blazes. The figure will not fully repay taxpayer costs, but it will help pay the bills to rebuild roads, other infrastructure and clean up debris, among other things, said attorney John Fiske, who represents local governments.

“While this is not 100%, it’s not pennies on the dollar,” Fiske said. “A lot of these communities … were hit very hard. In the aftermath of these wildfires, all sorts of public resources and taxpayer resources are lost.”

The group of nearly two dozen public entities that includes small fire, water and park agencies had sued Southern California Edison for negligence and improper operation of power lines and equipment, failure to clear vegetation around electric lines and for not shutting down circuits when high winds created fire danger.

SoCal Edison said it admitted no wrongdoing or liability in the settlement.

Utilities have increasingly come under fire for causing devastating wildland blazes in recent years. Tinder-dry vegetation has blown into power lines, sparking fires fanned by high winds across a landscape desiccated from drought and climate change.

The Thomas Fire that broke out in dry brush in Ventura County was sparked when the utility’s power lines slapped together in high winds on Dec. 4, 2017, investigators said. Two people were killed and 440 square miles (1,139 square kilometers) were burned.

The burn zone included a mountainside above the seaside city of Montecito, where a deluge a month later in fire-scarred terrain triggered a devastating mudslide that killed at least 21 people. Two others were never found.

The Woolsey Fire started with the company’s equipment a year ago just outside Los Angeles and quickly spread to the coast, jumping a highway and crossing the Santa Monica Mountains into Malibu, according to the company’s recent quarterly earnings report. It destroyed more than 1,600 homes and killed three people.

The settlement does not include private lawsuits for deaths and homes destroyed.

The settlement is the most comprehensive in state history because it involves 23 public entities, Fiske said.

But the overall figure is dwarfed by the $1 billion settlement Pacific Gas & Electric reached with local governments in Northern California for fires its equipment caused in recent years. The damage from those fires, however, was much greater with more than 20,000 homes destroyed.

The payout will be split among the counties of Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles and includes the cities of Santa Barbara, Malibu, Calabasas, Thousand Oaks and Westlake Village.

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